Ruling

18392-23 Marshall De Siqueira and Elon Musk Ltd v thetimes.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      24th August 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 18392-23 Marshall De Siqueira and Elon Musk Ltd v thetimes.co.uk

 

Summary of Complaint

1. Marcelo Marshall De Siqueira, acting on his own behalf and on behalf of his company Elon Musk Ltd, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thetimes.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “‘Burner’ firms are infiltrating innocent people’s houses”, published on 11 May 2023.

2. The article, which appeared online only, reported on “‘burner’ firms” – fraudulent organisations set up for a short period of time to pursue illegal activities, such as “claim[ing] government loans and pull[ing] off banking scams”. The article stated that “[a]bout 220,000 of [firms registered to Companies House this year] were registered to foreign nationals — some legitimate. It is estimated that 15 per cent of all company registrations, about 109,000, may be fake”.  The article also included specific examples of businesses created by foreign nationals, including firms that are “given names that appear very similar to those of well-known brands”. It then referenced the complainant’s company: “In another case [of a firm being given a name similar to a well-known brand], [a] Brazilian launched a firm called Elon Musk Ltd”.

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because it implied that his company, Elon Musk Ltd, was a burner firm. He considered that this was offensive, as his company was created for, and pursued, legitimate business purposes.

4. In addition, the complainant said that the article breached Clause 12 by referring to his Brazilian nationality. He considered that this was done to suggest that Elon Musk Ltd was not a legitimate business, and that this was discriminatory.

5. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. Turning first to Clause 1, the publication said that the article did not state that the complainant’s business was a burner firm. It highlighted that the reference to the complainant’s firm was preceded by the statement: “About 220,000 of these [companies] were registered to foreign nationals — some legitimate. It is estimated that 15 per cent of all company registrations, about 109,000, may be fake”. The publication considered, therefore, that it had not commented on whether the complainant’s firm was a legitimate business or a burner firm, and in fact made clear that the majority of companies such as those owned by the complainant were legitimate. Rather, it served as an example of how easy it was for individuals, including non-UK nationals, to set-up companies with potentially misleading names.  It also said that it had taken care to ensure that this was accurate: Prior to the article being published, it had verified the accuracy of the reference by checking Companies House.

6. Turning next to Clause 12, the publication said that the article referred to the complainant’s nationality and that nationality is not a characteristic that can be engaged under Clause 12. Further to this, the publication also said that the article did not make any pejorative or prejudicial references to the complainant’s nationality and that, in any case, given that the reference to the complainant’s nationality was made following a discussion of the number of companies registered in the UK by foreign nationals per year, his nationality was relevant to the story. 

Relevant Clause Provisions

Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

7. The Committee first considered the complainant’s concern that the article inaccurately characterised his business as a “burner firm”. It noted that the publication had not explicitly stated that the complainant’s company was a “burner firm”. Rather, it had stated that: “In another case [of a firm being given a name similar to a well-known brand], a Brazilian launched a firm called Elon Musk Ltd in May”; a fact which, in and of itself, was not in dispute.

8. The Committee then considered the statement in the context of the article as a whole. The article made clear that not all firms registered by foreign nationals are illegitimate, and this statement came before the reference to the complainant’s firm in the article. In these circumstances, and where it was not in dispute that the complainant launched a firm called Elon Musk Ltd, the Committee did not consider the article to be inaccurate or misleading in the manner suggested by the complainant. As such, there was no breach of Clause 1.

9. The Committee then considered whether the reference to the complainant’s nationality amounted to a breach of Clause 12. The article simply stated that the complainant was “Brazilian”, and the Committee did not consider that this could represent a prejudicial or pejorative reference as defined by Clause 12 (i). The Committee also recognised that the article discussed the creation of UK companies by foreign nationals. In this context it considered that the complainant’s nationality was genuinely relevant to the story. Where the reference to the complainant’s nationality was not prejudicial, pejorative, or irrelevant the Committee did not consider whether it constituted a possible reference to his race. As such, there was no breach of Clause 12.

Conclusions

10. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

11. N/A

 

Date complaint received:  11/05/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  04/08/2023